Just when we were beginning to wonder when The Wall Street Journal would actually start to cover the meltdown at its proprietor’s company with all the zest that the world’s best business newspaper ought to muster for the world’s biggest business story, Rupert Murdoch picked up the phone to his own paper and gave it an exclusive interview.
In the with the Journal’s London bureau chief, Murdoch made the revelation that he would establish an independent committee, to be led by a “distinguished nonemployee” to “investigate every charge of improper conduct” that has been swirling around News Corp. in recent weeks. These charges include hacking by his reporters into the phones of celebrities, politicians, 9/11 victims, and a murdered English child, as well as bribes to British policemen for scoops and information.
Although Murdoch said that his company had handled the crisis “extremely well in every possible way” (conceding only that “minor mistakes” were made), the setting up of the independent committee makes all previous assertions by Murdoch managers look ludicrous. Both Les Hinton, CEO of Dow Jones & Co., and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, have insisted that satisfactory (and comprehensive) internal inquiries into reportorial criminality have been conducted at Murdoch’s tabloid titles. In setting up a new committee, Murdoch has made it clear that those previous exercises were b.s.
In any case, those with knowledge of Murdoch methods will react to the latest announcement with a full-throated, cynical guffaw: “Murdoch” and “independent committee” sit together rather oxymoronically in the same sentence. One has only to look at his past promises of independence to know that this latest one is “not worth the paper it is written on.”
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Those, in fact, were the very words he uttered in 1982 to Fred Emery, the home editor of The Times of London, when he resolved to breach a series of undertakings to Parliament and the board of Times newspapers guaranteeing the independence of the Times of London. He made five promises, including one that guaranteed editors full control of political policy of the newspaper, and he broke every one of them. (When Emery drew to his attention once that he was violating his promise not to give instructions to an editor, he answered—according to Emery—“I give instructions to my editors all around the world, why shouldn’t I in London?”
More recently, in order to smooth the way for his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal, Murdoch agreed in 2007 to the establishment of an independent editorial committee to regulate relations between News Corp. management and Journal editors. Within four months of setting up the committee, however, Murdoch violated its operating protocols by engineering the departure of Marcus Brauchli, the paper's editor, behind the committee’s back.
Now we are faced with Murdoch’s latest flirtation with an independent committee, with a “distinguished nonemployee” at its helm. Who will that person be: a retired judge; a globe-trotting former British prime minister; an archbishop; a worthy Scandinavian type, of the sort who brokers peace in Sri Lanka or Puntland? It cannot, surely, be a person with whom Mr. Murdoch has done business before, or been at odds with, or competed against: so that rules out virtually every journalist or editor. (That may not, on reflection, be such a bad thing.)
There is no question that this is a very slick stunt. The only way to get to the bottom of the cesspit is through a judicial (or parliamentary) enquiry, with subpoena powers and oath-taking galore, where lying is done at considerable personal peril. Mr. Murdoch’s own bespoke committee is unlikely to deliver anything other than a verdict that is pleasing to the man who sets it all up.